Obituary Guide

Author Digs Deep into Lives of Archeologists

Brandon Sun, August 10, 2015

David McConkey

What do you think might be the coolest job around? Does your list include “archeologist”? If so, you share a fascination with American writer Marilyn Johnson. Her new book is Lives in Ruins: Archeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble.

Johnson is a great storyteller. Through her vivid descriptions, readers tag along as she joins archeologists in their natural habitats. Those settings include digging in the Caribbean for artifacts from the 1700s. Or looking on the island of Cyprus for traces of a Greek village from thousands of years ago. Or learning about forensics, attending a conference at the Machu Picchu site in Peru, and taking a college class in evolutionary anthropology from a “wild man” Neanderthal-looking professor.

Lives in Ruins“Archeologists,” the author explains at the beginning of the book, are “people who study people and the things that they leave behind – their bones, their trash, and their ruins.”
The author weaves into her stories a number of larger controversies and quandaries for consideration for all of us citizens. These revolve around a central question: What about the past is worth knowing about, investigating and saving?

Johnson reports that – like many others – a once male-dominated field is now increasingly filled by women. The first of these female archeologists really were breaking a glass ceiling. Johnson interviewed one who went to university in the 1960s; she had to endure lecturing from her professors that education for women was a waste of time.

Today, female archeologists are bringing a fresh perspective to the role of women in the societies of long ago. “What women did in the past is recoverable and interesting,” the author quotes a female archeologist telling her. Johnson points out that “archeologists find what they’re looking for.” You won’t find it in the past, for example, if “you never look for evidence of powerful women.”

Archeology, the author notes, has been popularized by two huge cultural hits from the 1980s. The first was the book series by Jean Auel that began with The Clan of the Cave Bear. These extensively researched books had a huge impact on how the public imagines early humans and our rather close relatives, the Neanderthals.

And we now think differently about ancient men and women. “Auel’s “biggest achievement,” Johnson writes, “was to replace the image of a brutish cave man with a beautiful, intelligent, resourceful cave woman.”

And then there’s Indiana Jones, the swashbuckling archeologist who first appeared in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. This fictional portrayal has greatly influenced real-life archeology. Untold numbers of kids are inspired by the Indiana Jones movies to make archeology their career. In gratitude, the Archeology Institute of America presented an award to the actor Harrison Ford and even appointed Ford to its board of directors. 

“Every archeologist I interviewed,” Johnson reports, “worked Indiana Jones into the conversation, usually with affection, as if mentioning a daredevil older brother.” 

But the glamour of Indiana Jones is often not duplicated in the real world. Most crucially: lack of funding. Johnson relates many stories of archeologists struggling to make ends meet, both personally and with the organizations they work for.

Ironically, one place has lots of funding for archeology: the military. The U.S. military and the archeology profession were shaken by the looting of the National Museum of Iraq, shortly after the Americans invaded in 2003. A few years later, the U.S. military inadvertently destroyed the ruins of a 5,000-year-old Babylonian temple.
Johnson describes efforts to equip today’s soldiers with more archeological training and resources. Troops now will do their fighting with a greater understanding of – and sensitivity to – heritage sites.

(The more recent intentional archeological destruction by the Islamic State, of course, presents a whole new challenge.)
Among more peaceful settings as well, we are losing touch with our patrimony. All too often our heritage is looted, neglected or swept away by new development.

Lives in Ruins is Johnson’s third book. Her first, The Dead Beat, was about obituary writers. Her second was about librarians: This Book is Overdue!
“Archeologists, librarians, and obit writers – they all work passionately and for little personal reward to save bits of our cultural history,” Johnson concluded in a recent online interview. “They all connect us to the people and objects and stories of our past.”

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See Also:

Marilyn Johnson on       (on

This Book is Overdue!

Six Words To Describe A Life?

Reflecting on Life and Death along the Camino de Santiago

Obituaries in American Culture: A Review

Live Well, Do Good

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